Men hold Greek flags in front of the Greek parliament during an anti-austerity rally in Athens, Greece, on July 13, 2015. (Xinhua/Marios Lolos)
Men hold Greek flags in front of the Greek parliament during an anti-austerity rally in Athens, Greece, on July 13, 2015. (Xinhua/Marios Lolos)

by Maria Spiliopoulou, Valentini Anagnostopoulou

Behind the protective masks, doctors and nurses at Evaggelismos general hospital in Athens these days are smiling.

With 1,000 beds and about 3,000 personnel, the largest public hospital in Greece, located a few steps away from the Greek parliament, has reflected so far the effective battle against the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.

Greece, a country of 11 million people, has counted 130 deaths and 2,506 infections since Feb. 26 when the first case was confirmed, the health ministry said on Saturday.

The government’s decisiveness to impose quickly draconian containment measures and the responsible behavior of Greeks are identified as the main factors of the success by many experts.

Doctors and nurses in the frontline of the fight at Evaggelismos, one of the 13 referral hospitals nationwide announced by the government to receive COVID-19 patients, confirmed this when giving a tour to Xinhua on Friday.

They stressed, however, that there should be no complacency and hospitals should be prepared for the next wave and challenges.

EARLY, PROMPT PREPARATION

Spyros Zakynthinos, Director of the ICU and President of the Hellenic Thoracic Society, is proud of the track record so far.

None of the doctors, nurses, administrative staff, security and cleaning personnel has been infected with the novel coronavirus at Evaggelismos, he told Xinhua.

In addition, fatality rates are far lower compared to the statistics given by countries with stronger healthcare systems.

So far, 50 patients have been admitted to Evaggelismos’ ICU. The ten who died were elderly with many underlying health problems, while 25 have been discharged from the ICU and another six will follow soon, Zakynthinos said.

He attributes the success to the prompt preparation of the system more than a month before they received their first patient in the ICU on March 11.

Evaggelismos had 50 beds in the ICU in February and currently has 80. In the past two months, 120 nurses and paramedic personnel were hired at the hospital.

The number of intensive care unit beds across the country stood at 565 in February and has almost doubled to 1,004 today, government spokesperson Stelios Petsas said last week, adding that 3,131 doctors and nurses have been hired to boost understaffed hospitals.

“The ICU of Evaggelismos had been prepared extensively. During the pandemic, we have doubled the beds so that we can cope better with the needs. Fortunately, we needed only half of the beds. It seems that currently we have left behind the pandemic’s peak and we have reached a stage when fewer people are admitted here,” he said.

Three weeks ago, the people reaching the hospital were in the dozens. In the past week, the number has dropped to 2 to 3 patients every other day.

“Without the implementation of measures in Greece, we would have some 50,000 fatalities,” Zakynthinos said.

“The virus’ contagiousness is unprecedented. A person can infect at least 4 people within a week and another 400 in 15 days. One, two, three persons can do great damage in a country,” he explained.

COMMUNICATION KEY IN TREATMENT

In addition to the ICU beds, Evaggelismos’ special COVID-19 clinic has 100 beds. At the peak, more than 50 people were being treated. Now the number has halved. Pulmonologist Evangelos Ballis is the director of the clinic.

“When they first arrive they are anxious… There is fear, but along with this fear there is also significant discipline on patients’ part and hence there is good cooperation,” he told Xinhua.

Communication is key in the treatment, he explained. They are trying to give courage to the patients and their families to fight panic attacks and depression.

“You can’t touch people to give them courage… We are trying to explain where they are and what we expect will happen in the coming days,” Ballis said.

Restrictions regarding physical contact make the situation very difficult for doctors and nurses also when it comes to communication with their own families, he added.

“We all have people in our households who are elderly and vulnerable. Many of us do not stay home anymore. This is what affects us and pains us most, that we have to keep distances from our loved ones and we do not see them a lot,” the doctor said.

Ballis reiterated the plea to the public to not let its guard down and continue observing social distancing, even once the full nationwide lockdown which started on March 23 in Greece ends on May 4, as announced.

The sacrifices made should not go to waste, he stressed.

“You try to be trained on how to protect yourself and the others and you are doing your best, because that is what the medical staff is always doing, the best possible for the patient without discounts in healthcare,” Anastasia Karagiorgou, the head nurse at Evaggelismos’ ICU said.

As Greece is planning the day after the gradual lifting of restrictions, she underlines that the national health system should be supported further to be ready for the worse and meet also the needs of other patients — who had to stay home for weeks waiting for the rescheduling of canceled appointments for operations and tests.

“We responded very well. The medical staff, nurse and doctors must be reinforced,” Karagiorgou said, calling for the government’s attention to the welfare of medical staff. Enditem

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